Was the Home Guard a realistic defense against a German invasion of Britain?
The Home Guard was established in 1940 to meet Britain’s need for an extra line of defence, should it be invaded. The Home Guard are fondly regarded, even inspiring a long running BBC sitcom - "Dad's Army". They were held in such esteem that they mounted Buckingham Palace guard twice in their four and a half years of service.
However, the Home Guard’s effectiveness in defence against an invading German army has been debated for many years. No invasion of Britain took place during the Second World War, so historians speculate about the issue. David Carroll’s view is that the Home Guard would have been an effective defence, but others argue that the evidence does not support this.
Traditionally, the Home Guard is seen as consisting of old men. Some suggest that the age of Home Guard members was a detrimental factor in their effectiveness. This is only partly true. The average age of Home Guards in 1940 was around 35 . Elderly recruits existed, but many were young men in reserved occupations and those just outside conscription age. Countering this argument some suggest some recruits were too incapacitated to join the regular forces and would have been detrimental to the Home Guard’s effectiveness.
Opinion is divided over the effectiveness of the “old-timers”. Many say that in the face of fit and athletic enemies, these old men had no chance. Some go as far as saying they were a liability. This may be true, but others suggest their value lay elsewhere. Many older recruits were First World War veterans, and therefore knew what they were doing and could take inexperienced recruits under their wing. An SAS soldier after a training exercise with the Home Guard said the veterans “had forgotten more about fighting than we…would ever learn” . Being an elite soldier, and therefore a good assessor of fighting capability, his opinion is valuable.
Divided opinion exists about the effectiveness of training. Many believe the part time nature of the Home Guard did not allow time for adequate, and particularly specialist, training. The Secretary of State, David Margesson, wrote in 1942 that specialist training “cannot be carried out on a part time basis” , an opinion based on multiple authoritative sources. Historians, like S.P. MacKenzie, question training priorities, saying there were some commanders emphasising “square-bashing, boot and button polishing, and the value of cold steel over camouflage, modern battle tactics, and squad fighting” . This has produced a reputation that the Home Guard was a backward looking organisation, unprepared for modern warfare.
Others suggest that training was ample. There were training schools teaching essential skills like camouflage, fieldcraft, tactics, and weapons use. Often live ammunition was used giving preparation for actual combat. There were booklets for the Home Guard where they could learn new skills. There were many exercises (nearly one every weekend) set out like scenarios in modern warfare - the RAF would even perform mock strafings . Historians suggest the number of exercises as well as contemporary reports of good performances show the Home Guard was prepared for modern warfare.
However, questions are raised over the effectiveness of these exercises. There could be much confusion over just who the umpires had declared “dead”. Sometimes “dead” participants would covertly rejoin the battle. Examples of lacking commitment in these exercises, such as two Home Guards having reached their objective of capturing a bridge, finding that everyone else had gone to the pub , have led to a popular belief that Home Guard training and attitude was poor.
Records show a huge response to War Minister Anthony Eden’s request for Home Guard volunteers in May 1940 (then called the Local Defence Volunteers) which speaks volumes about the men’s attitude. Within twenty-four hours of Eden’s request, over 250,000 men had joined - by the end of June, 1,456,000 men were recruited . The desire to defend their country is seen through this response, and groups of people wishing to play a part in the defence of Britain existed even before Eden’s announcement. According to David Carroll, this “embodied the spirit of the times” . Carroll seems to be slightly biased towards the Home Guard, but there is little conflict among historians over their determination.
But their gallant spirit was not always so high. After the imminent invasion threat of 1940 had subsided, there was by 1941, “a mood of complacency” according to a government report . MacKenzie comments that in “May 1941 the Southern Regional Police noted that German airmen who had bailed out were finding it difficult to get themselves taken into custody, since the Home Guard were no longer interested in arresting them” . Police reports are likely to be reliable, but there is a chance of bias due to a rivalry between Home Guards and policemen. This apparent lack of motivation is contrasted by the sometimes over-zealousness with which Home Guards undertook their internal security duties. MacKenzie details some of these such as Home Guards asking to see the identity papers of people they had known for years, and the numerous reports of policemen challenged at gunpoint to show identity, sometimes more than once by the same man (this could be part of the Home Guard and police rivalry). This could be seen as thoroughness or posturing self-importance. The Home Guard’s actions could have serious repercussions such as roadblocks preventing fire engines reaching their destination. There were also casualties through the shooting of motorists. Home Guards’ signals to motorists were not always clear and often gave incorrect instructions. Jumpy recruits after seeing something and mistaking it for invading troops would occasionally raise the invasion alarm. There is little doubt that such events occurred as they are detailed in official reports. These facts cause some to doubt the effectiveness of Home Guards, due to apparent ineptness in doing their job. Others are more forgiving due to the anxious times of 1940 when invasion was imminent.
Those supporting the view that the Home Guard was largely inept claim evidence from their questionable weapons proficiency. MacKenzie, writing in 1995 with fifty years’ information accessible to him, questions Home Guard marksmanship, highlighting poor firing range performances attributing this to “limited range time and (in the case of older volunteers) variable eyesight”. Further evidence comes from the number of accidental training injuries and deaths. In 1944, seventeen men were killed in training accidents . MacKenzie states; “the chances of a Home Guard dying on duty from causes that had nothing to do with the enemy were at least four times those of a regular soldier”.
The opinion of many Home Guards themselves was that they would repel invaders. Such beliefs were often genuine, but were sometimes blind optimism or a pretence to maintain morale. After the war, they realised they had little hope. A member of the Loughborough College Company claims; “We seriously believed that we could have stopped Hitler’s crack paratroops and panzers!” – his statement implies this belief was optimistic. Many Home Guards now believe themselves lucky that no invasion came, however they do think they would have given a good account of themselves. Many argue that those best to comment on the Home Guard’s effectiveness were actually a part of it. Conversely, others say that Home Guards are biased towards the organisation. This explains their attitude that they would stop Hitler’s armies.
A significant problem for Home Guards was attending duties after work. A curate working near Nottingham remembered Home Guard duty in late 1940 was “becoming a very heavy burden to men who had already done a day’s work…They felt they had already done their bit for the nation” . There was rising absenteeism until the government introduced more military organisation, with non-attendance penalties. Many Home Guards who quit said if invasion became imminent again, they would return to duty. The above leads some to suggest that Home Guards were ineffective. The hypothetical question of what they would do if Britain was invaded during working hours is raised. Others riposte with the fact that many Home Guard platoons were established to defend their place of work.
The determination of Home Guards to stop an invading army was not really in doubt. It was their competence and ability where conflicting opinion lies.
Traditionally, the Home Guard is seen as being armed with broom handles, pikes and improvised Heath Robinson-like contraptions. There is some truth in this, but the adequacy of Home Guard equipment is an area of much debate.
The months after the Home Guard’s formation in 1940 are characterised with the virtual absence of modern weaponry. There were those who had their own guns, but they were often antiquated (museums, like the Imperial War Museum, were raided for firearms). These old weapons, having little or no surviving ammunition, were “carried in the hope they would frighten solitary parachutists into surrender”. In this situation, they probably would have sufficed, but historians concur that they were much less effective than the modern, well-engineered German weapons.
Many, including David Carroll in “Dad’s Army: The Home Guard 1940-1944”, claim the Home Guard was “a victim of its own success” as the government greatly underestimated the numbers who would join - a reason for the insufficient weaponry. Another was that the regular army was still reeling from the massive losses of equipment at Dunkirk. Weapons for the Home Guard could not be spared when the regular army was so short of arms. The Home Guard was always in short supply, despite the influx of weapons from Canada and the USA. Rifles arrived, but in meagre numbers - only one between four or five men. Ammunition was scarce too (as little as ten rounds per rifle ). Home Guards found that their British rifle ammunition did not fit rifles from abroad. These foreign rifles were also old. The Canadian Ross rifle had been withdrawn in the First World War due to its tendency to jam, but the Home Guard were expected to use it. It was not until 1942 (when the invasion threat was largely over) that the vast majority of Home Guards had their own firearm, leading historians to conclude that when the invasion threat was greatest, the Home Guard was least well equipped and therefore could have done little to prevent the German onslaught.
In 1941, with a lack of other weapons to give, the War Office issued pikes to Home Guards. They received a very negative reception to say the least. At this stage, Home Guards did not have the weapons needed to mount a successful defence.
Many argue that with effective weapons in short supply the Home Guard were unable to stop invaders. Others disagree, saying that by 1942 the Home Guard had access to many effective weapons like Lee Enfield rifles, Thompson and Browning machine guns, Vickers, Lewis and Sten guns, and many grenades. These weapons could potentially provide adequate fire to cause invaders significant difficulties. This may not be a good argument given that the invasion threat was over after June 1941. Also it is argued that these weapons would not have been effective in the face of tanks and other armoured vehicles.
There is debate over the effectiveness of unconventional weaponry like “Molotov Cocktails”. Molotov Cocktails would have been effective against troops, but not against tanks. The so-called “Sticky Bombs” would have proved effective against tanks. Weapons like the “Northover Projector” and “Blacker Bombard” may have had potential against tanks, but their accuracy was poor.
Debate exists over the effectiveness of the Home Guard’s arsenal. Consensus among historians regarding the early days of the Home Guard is that weapons were not adequate. Improvements came later but by this time the threat of invasion was over.
Intended Role and Purpose:
Many argue that the Home Guard was unable to fulfil its intended role in invasion, highlighting the capability of the German army, it having stormed through Europe, easily overwhelming regular armies with their Blitzkrieg tactics. The Home Guards were not of the same calibre as regular troops and would have capitulated quickly.
Advocates of the Home Guard’s effectiveness agree, but suggest the Home Guard’s role was not repelling invasion, but supporting regular troops. In 1940, the government defined their role to include “delaying and obstructing the enemy advance ‘by any means in their power’” . The intention was to delay invaders so the regular army could rally and take decisive action (the regular army was still reeling from Dunkirk in 1940). Invaders would not have made easy progress as in every town and village, the Home Guard would have delayed them, even if only for a short time, impairing the German Blitzkrieg. Their role was also to observe the enemy, keep any fifth columnists in check, and combat parachutists. Since parachutists could land virtually anywhere, Home Guards would have been the first to reach them and exploit their vulnerability just after landing. Winston Churchill, in a speech marking the Home Guard’s third anniversary, noted this; “(the Home Guard) are specially adapted to meet that most modem form of overseas attack - the mass descent of parachute troops” . Churchill’s speech, evidently intended to boost morale with some exaggeration in it, clearly states the importance of Home Guards in defending against parachute landings.
The War Office’s first training instructions reveal the Home Guard’s intended role; “(Home Guards) are neither trained nor equipped to offer strong resistance to highly trained German troops, and they will therefore best fulfil their role by observation, by the rapid transmission of information, and by confining the enemy’s activities. They will also act as guards at places of tactical or strategic importance” . Historians suggest that Home Guards could have fulfilled these roles.
The Home Guard was important for freeing regular troops from supporting positions in Britain to fight abroad. Many Home Guards were trained to operate Anti-Aircraft batteries. Freeing regular troops to fight overseas was a form of effective defence as it helped wage war
against Germany, ultimately preventing invasion.
There are those who believe that the government knew that the Home Guard was ineffective, using it simply as a tool to provide an outlet for men’s patriotic desires. Some argue that the secretive “Auxiliary Units” (underground groups intended for guerrilla warfare against invaders) were the real force intended to harass invaders, not the Home Guard. In contrast, others say the Home Guard were still important and Auxiliary Units were just an additional defence.
It can be argued that the Home Guard did not need to be an effective defence as they were never likely to be required. Operation Sealion, the proposed German invasion plan of Britain, was something of a pipe dream and never likely to go ahead. Historians believing this draw attention to Hitler’s apparent disinterest in the scheme - Hitler felt it was more of a propaganda ploy to frighten Britons than a real strategic option. Indeed, many high-ranking German officials, including the principal army commander, Gerd von Runstedt, disapproved of the risky plan. Besides, the RAF managed to repel the Luftwaffe’s efforts to establish air superiority over Britain and the plan was abandoned in summer 1940. After this, invasion was never again likely, especially by 1942, which heralded the British victory at El Alamein, American entry into the war and the German disaster at Stalingrad. Many argue that Hitler’s position was now too defensive to consider invasion a viable option.
Some argue, however, that had Sealion gone ahead, the Home Guard would have proved an ineffective defence. The invasion was scheduled to take place in summer 1940 or spring 1941. This period of 1940-41 was the time when the Home Guard was least well prepared to defend against invaders. Sealion planned to take twelve divisions over the English Channel to five beachheads established by an initial wave of small fast motorboats. Paratroops of the 7th Fliegerdivision would land behind the beachheads in support.
It was more the job of the Navy and coastal defences to stop the troops landing on the south coast, but the paratroops were to be attacked by the Home Guard. MacKenzie suggests that Home Guards would have capitulated as “Older men hastily grouped together and armed with a few shotguns and rifles would have been no match for squads of elite Fallschirmtruppen (paratroops) armed with submachine guns”.
Home Guards were effective insofar as harassing an invading army, in accordance with Carroll’s views. Even if the Home Guard proved to be inept, the invader would still have to delay to deal with them. A detrimental factor in the Home Guard’s effectiveness was its weaponry. Without effective weapons, they were of minimal utility. In the end, weapons were adequate, but in 1940, when they were most needed, weapons were poor. Home Guards were determined and had the necessary resolve to do their duty to the best of their ability. People of the time were perhaps more patriotic and jingoistic than today and staunchly resisted the idea of being invaded.
If Britain was invaded, the Home Guard would have fought admirably, but there is little doubt among historians that they would have been overrun by the awesome potential of the German army. Perhaps the question is not whether the Home Guard were an effective defense, but whether the German army could be stopped.
S. P. MacKenzie, The Home Guard (Oxford University Press, 1995)
Frank and Joan Shaw, We Remember The Home Guard (Echo Press, 1983)
David Carroll, Dad’s Army: The Home Guard 1940-1944 (Sutton Publishing Limited, 2002)
Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then (Arrow Books, 1974)